Are we falling for the Great Green Con?

By | July 23, 2007

Are we falling for the great green con?


Planting a tree to ‘offset’ your holiday flight. Recycling the old banger for a new car. Eating organic food. Is this REALLY helping save the planet?

Global warming is a terrible thing and we are all against it. So when a company offers to fight the dreaded climate change and – what’s more – pay you handsomely to do so, only the most extreme cynic could surely, possibly, object. Take, for example, the latest wheeze from motor manufacturer Vauxhall.

If you want to buy a new car, the company promises to give you £1,000 trade-in for your old car – regardless of its age and condition.

What is more, the firm goes on to promise that your old car will then be scrapped, removing thousands of what the company calls “so-called bangers, emitting choking exhaust fumes into the atmosphere”.

Sound too good to be true? That’s because it IS too good to be true. Vauxhall’s “offer” is, in fact, no more than the latest in a growing list of climate cons – marketing ploys used by unscrupulous companies which use green propaganda to make you part with your cash.

Carbon offset schemes are not only poorly audited but suffer from fundamental flaws

For the truth is that most, if not all, of these ploys have little to do with the environment and everything to do with profits.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with profits, it’s just that I wish companies would be more honest in their sales blurb.

Take the Vauxhall offer. It is quite true that an old, badly maintained car will usually emit more pollutants from its exhaust pipe than a brand new vehicle of similar power and performance.

But not all old cars are badly maintained, and because old cars tend to be lighter than new ones, their carbon footprint (i.e. fuel consumption) can often be substantially smaller.

Vauxhall claims that a new diesel emits 800kg of carbon dioxide a year less than an old one.

Even if this figure were true, which I doubt (as Vauxhall assumes an annual mileage of 12,000, which is actually the average in America, compared to our 9,000), it ignores a very important fact, namely the several tonnes of carbon dioxide that are produced in the manufacture of a new car, and indeed the disposal of an old one.

No wonder the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders is beside itself with delight at the news.

A similar wheeze was tried a few years ago in Ireland, where the government came up with a cashback scheme for “polluting” old cars, to help the country’s motor dealers.

But it’s not just the motor industry that’s at it. Everywhere, companies and services are falling over themselves to be “green” – and the sad truth is that, like Vauxhall’s, most of these claims are no more than marketing hype.

For instance, check into just about any hotel and you will be faced with signs piously asking you to help save the environment by reusing towels and not wasting water.

Except, of course, the real reason is simple: the management wants you to help them cut their water and laundry bills.

Sometimes, to reinforce the idea, the little card upon which the towel-plea is printed is decorated with fluffy clouds and other green icons.

It would be more honest to say “Cut our costs and help the environment”, but they don’t.

Take the issue of flying. We are now forced to feel we can assuage our guilt by buying into one of the many carbon-offset schemes on offer.

The theory is simple: you can repair the damage created by your flight – in the form of emissions of carbon dioxide (the main man-made greenhouse gas) – or other profligate consumption, such as driving a gas-guzzling car, by paying an offset firm to fund the cutting of CO2 production elsewhere, for example by planting trees.

Such schemes sound great, but they are no more than the modern equivalent of buying indulgences, the medieval Roman Catholic practice whereby pious sinners could pay priests to avoid purgatory.

Carbon offset schemes are not only poorly audited but suffer from fundamental flaws, which mean that they are unlikely to reduce in any meaningful way carbon emissions into the atmosphere.

There are myriad problems. How do you calculate the amount of carbon that needs to be offset?

The CarbonNeutral Company has worked out that a return flight from London to Bangkok emits 2.1 tonnes of CO2 per passenger. This, it calculates, costs around £24 to offset.

However, the rival UK firm Climate Care calculates the figure at 2.78 tonnes – but reckons it will cost just £20.84 to make good the environmental debt you owe to planet Earth.

Then there is the whole thorny issue of what exactly is the best way to offset.

If you plant a tree, it will indeed soak up CO2 from the atmosphere as it grows. But if you burn that tree, or let it die and rot, all that carbon is put straight back where it came from.

According to Michael Buick, of Oxford-based Climate Care (which organises carbon offsetting for the Tory Party and the Guardian newspaper, which is – naturally – obsessed with reducing its own carbon footprint), it is “difficult” to say for sure whether the carbon offsetting you are paying for wouldn’t have happened anyway.

If the £50 which you are told will compensate for the damage caused by your carbon emissions, say, buys a dozen low-energy lightbulbs for a Tanzanian village, then how do you know that these lightbulbs would not have been purchased anyway?

But the main problem with offsetting is that it is, at best, a sticking plaster.

If we are serious about reducing carbon dioxide emissions, then simply paying £30 to a company every time we jet off to the tropics is the equivalent of putting a paper bag over our heads and wishing the problem away.

Sooner or later, people will see through these schemes but, in the meantime, there is money to be made from guilt.

Then there are the green “cons” involving organic food. There is no evidence whatsoever that it is better for you, and little real proof that such crops are good for the planet.

Sure, some of it tastes better, and that may be reason enough, but for the most part, “organic” = more profits.

Green aeroplanes? An oxymoron, surely. Not according to Boeing, whose new 787 Dreamliner was unveiled to such fanfare a few days ago.

It’s got plastic wings and fuel-efficient engines – and, according to the company, will produce 20 per cent less CO2 per passenger mile.

All well and good, but in practice, more efficient aircraft simply means lower ticket prices and thus more people flying.

Everywhere, we are bombarded with spurious green claims, which sound warm and fuzzy yet are actually meaningless.

Look at all those little symbols that companies love to slap on their packaging – little pictures of the Earth, terms like “eco- safe” and “Earth smart”, which usually mean less than nothing.

The Advertising Standards Authority has ruled against several spurious claims of greenery.

Unsurprisingly, car companies are some of the worst offenders. Toyota recently described its hybrid Lexus 4×4 as “zero guilt” and was also taken to task for making exaggerated claims about the fuel efficiency of its Prius hybrid car.

Councils and governments love going green, especially when it can be used to raise taxes.

The Borough of Richmond-upon-Thames, for example, penalises its well-heeled residents by charging them more to park less-efficient cars.

This sounds like excellent news until you realise that the law of unintended consequences kicks in fast; charge people a fortune to park outside their houses during working hours, and for some residents, the economic argument against driving to work evaporates faster than premium unleaded.

So the net result, at least initially, may be GREATER emissions of CO2, because this is a tax on inefficient cars standing still rather than being driven.

This newspaper has championed the arguments against rubbish bin taxes and fortnightly collections – penny-pinching measures dressed up in green clothes. Happily the public is seeing through this scam, as are MPs who last week damned the fortnightly schemes.

But that doesn’t stop companies from continuing this green onslaught.

British Gas seems obsessed with getting every house to buy a new boiler.

They say we will save money, and also that we will save the Earth. However, they don’t mention the healthy profit they will make (and the complicated carbon-calculations involved with making new gas boilers).

Everywhere you go these days, you are invited to pay more to go